The overturning of Roe V Wade in the US has encouraged many to take a closer look at abortion laws within the UK. Whilst abortion is accessible to many women in the UK, two recent cases highlight the scary reality that, even in 2022, abortion is a criminal offence if it fails to meet certain criteria. This necessitates decriminalising abortion and putting precautions in place to maximise women’s rights.
Recently, there were calls to include the right to an abortion within the UK bill of rights. Dominic Raab, however, stated that this issue was already “settled in UK law.” But on closer inspection, UK laws surrounding abortion may not be as “settled” as Raab is making out. These laws are in fact having damaging effects on women’s rights.
Despite abortion being legal in the UK, up to 23 weeks and 6 days of pregnancy, under the 1967 Abortion Act, it must comply with certain regulations. For example, being administered by registered practitioners and through medical practices such as the NHS. Recently, two cases have been reported of women facing prison sentences for allegedly failing to meet these regulations.
The first woman, who is already mother to a toddler, has been accused of illegally administering the abortion pill, Misoprostol, to herself to induce a miscarriage, despite it being routinely used by doctors. She is due to be trialled in February 2023. This is due to a 19th century abortion law, the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. The act criminalises women if they illegally procure their own miscarriage with punishment being a potential life in prison.
The second woman has been charged with child destruction under the Infant Life (Preservation) Act, dating back to 1929. She allegedly obtained pills from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) under legislation passed during lockdown which enabled women under 10 weeks pregnant to obtain pills sent in the post. However, she then went on to deliver a stillborn 28-week stillborn foetus, which is 18 weeks over the 10-week home abortion limit. After being reported to the police she faces up to life in prison if she is found guilty.
But within the 21st century times have clearly moved on, and these laws appear incredibly outdated. Rising police investigations over women accessing abortions greatly restricts women’s rights and has no place in our society. Therefore, we desperately need to work towards decriminalising abortion.
And it is not just these two cases where women have been caught in the firing line. In response to growing police investigations, a group of 66 organisations sent a letter to Max Hill QC, the director of public prosecutions, to drop these proceedings. They believe police have investigated around 17 women for ending their pregnancies within the last eight years, “though the actual number may be higher.
Women are increasingly being punished for crimes they did not even commit. This inhumane treatment has damaging impacts not only for the women in question, but for other women seeking medical care and/or abortions. Claire Murphy, CEO of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, believes women experiencing miscarriages and incomplete abortions may be deterred from seeking medical help for fears of being accused of unlawful behaviour. She also underlines how some migrant women “may feel that accessing abortion pills illegally is their only option” if they are ineligible for abortion care covered by NHS funding. It seems entirely unjust to prosecute women merely for exercising their bodily autonomy.
Many Doctors have expressed their views on abortion laws, believing that women’s medical care is often put at risk because of it. Research by the charity, British Pregnancy Advisory Service, found that doctors were often deterred from pursuing a career in abortion provision due to the threat of prosecution, requiring them to rigidly follow set rules and requirements. Furthermore, the fact that two doctors must approve an abortion means there are often delays in the process.
Instead of creating a safe space for women during pregnancy, increased police interference is making it a space of judgement and criminality. In the long term this is only going to cause more medical issues and prove damaging to many women and their rights.
Whilst there was great outrage in the UK surrounding the overturning of Roe V Wade which punished women for seeking abortion, outdated UK laws are implicating the very same thing. Decriminalising abortion would align it with a form of healthcare, and whilst it would still be medically governed, it would remove the stigma and fear of prosecution currently attached to it. This would maximise women’s rights and ownerships over their bodies and prevent them from being wrongfully investigated and even imprisonmened. Times have clearly changed and we must be adapting accordingly.
Words by Hannah Robinson
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